As any successful writer knows – especially like me,
with an internet background – ‘content
But as a music lover (and a historian, by training –
that’s another story), I’d like to
suggest, rather, that context is king.
That is, if – like me – you like your music to expand
your horizons rather than confirm a blinkered safe zone,
where you might only go to concerts
with works you already know, and never try anything new.
My musical modus operandi
is rather simple.
Every new work I hear opens up an infinite
number of future exploratory possibilities.
I often find a CD of a composer or works I don’t
know and immediately go online and find something that
has been inspired by that first CD
purchase. One recent case in point.
I found a disc (actually in a local charity shop) of music
by Bernd Alois Zimmerman,
recently recorded and released on the Capriccio label by Karl-
Heinz Steffens and the Deutsche Staatsphilharmonie
It turns out to be the
first of an ongoing series entitled Modern Times
I had ordered their second disc with
music by Luigi Dallapiccola within minutes of getting
home and online. Two more discs
have recently come out, devoted to Henri
Duttileux and Ginastera (in readiness for his
centenary next year). They represent a great choice of rare
repertoire and it’s a series I’ll be
But back to context; as you might expect a couple of recent examples spring to mind: one
operatic, one dramatic. I can start with a simple question – what makes Mozart and
Shakespeare the greats that they are? We’re always told that they are great, and we seem
happy to accept that, but how can we really tell? I recently saw what was probably the UK
première production of Salieri’s La grotta di Trofonio
, courtesy of Bampton Classical Opera.
It was written just before Mozart and Da Ponte’s Le nozze di Figaro
- indeed they were
commissioned at the same time – but the most intriguing comparison is with Così fan tutte
because both focus on two couples whose love for each other are put through the hoops
before ending happily ever after. Salieri and his librettist Giovanni Battista Casti take two
sisters, one sporty the other bookish, who each have lovers of similar hue. But when the girls
pass through the cave of the title, belonging to the magician Trofonio, which can change
anyone who goes into it to the complete opposite, a merry hell of consternation and confusion
It’s not too far of a step to imagine Mozart and Da Ponte (with whom Salieri had found it
impossible to work) looking at La grotta di Trofonio
and making a pact to outdo it on its own
terms. But in so doing, Mozart was intrigued enough by Salieri’s arias and ensembles to
emulate his musical innovations. Knowing La grotta di Trofonio
doesn’t demean Così fan
Rather – to me at any rate – it enhances it, because we can see Mozart wasn’t working
in a vacuum. He was raising his game against the competition. It tells us more about Vienna,
Salieri and Mozart and makes Così
all the richer for it.
My Shakespearean example comes from just reading James Shapiro’s new book, 1606 –
William Shakespeare and the Year of King Lear.
In it he argues – plausibly – that
Shakespeare’s King Lear
was written in response to an earlier play called King Lier
same way as earlier he had used other plays on Richard III, Henry V and Hamlet as a
springboard to write his own plays, vastly improving the original source material in so
doing). He could see more dramatic possibilities and enhanced almost every aspect of the
play, but it makes his genius more tangible than if he’d just thought the story up on the spot.
Nick Breckenfield has worked in and around the classical music industry over the last 25 years - at venues, agencies and as
a programme note writer and marketeer. He was Classical Music
editor for Whatsonwhen for 13 years,
and current clients include the Borletti-Buitoni Trust.